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Commercialization of Taconite

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United States Steel’s Extaca plant, 1960. The Oliver Mining Division of USS built the Extaca plant to accompany the Pilotac plant in the development of feasible taconite processing methods.

United States Steel’s Extaca plant, 1960. The Oliver Mining Division of USS built the Extaca plant to accompany the Pilotac plant in the development of feasible taconite processing methods.

Though taconite was identified as an iron-bearing rock on the Iron Ranges of northern Minnesota long before the 1950s, it wasn’t until then that it was profitably extracted, processed, and shipped to steel mills on the Great Lakes. As natural ore reserves were diminished, taconite became an alternative source of iron that allowed the Iron Range to continue mining operations in a changing global economy.

The word taconite is derived from the Taconic Mountains of New England, with “taconic” coming from an Eastern Algonquian language—probably Mohican or Lenape. Newton Horace Winchell, Minnesota’s state geologist, created the name in 1892 after he noticed that the rocks in New England looked like the rocks plentiful throughout the Iron Range in Minnesota. The geological structure of taconite, however, is different from the rocks of the Taconics. Taconite has a very low iron content—at best, only 32.5 percent of the rock is iron ore. Since there were many accessible deposits of natural ore with iron contents closer to 60 percent of the rock, taconite was at first passed over in favor of ore that could be shipped directly to smelters without processing.

Taconite was officially documented on the Mesabi Iron Range years before mineable natural ore was found near Mountain Iron. In 1870, prospectors Christian Wieland and Peter Mitchell traveled to the Mesabi Range and found a massive deposit of taconite near current-day Babbitt. They bought the land and incorporated the Mesaba Iron Company in 1882. After the Merritt brothers began mining natural ore on other parts of the Mesabi, Mesaba Iron faded into obscurity until the Mesabi Syndicate was formed in 1915.

A key member of the Mesabi Syndicate was Edward W. Davis—a researcher at the University of Minnesota’s Mines Experiment Station, which was founded in 1914. Researchers at the Minnesota Experiment Station found that the iron in taconite can be accessed by grinding the rock into fine particles and then running them through magnets to separate the iron from the waste rock. Using this information, Davis and the Mesabi Syndicate made an existing camp, the Sulphur Camp, as their headquarters.

The Syndicate mined the taconite and tested it to see if it could consolidate the iron into pieces suitable for smelting. The first product they created was called sinter, which was a rock-like product that had higher iron content than raw taconite. This research led to the incorporation of the Mesabi Iron Company in 1919, which opened the first commercial taconite facility on the Iron Range.

The Mesabi Iron Company was largely unsuccessful. The sinter product couldn’t compete with the natural ore mined elsewhere on the Mesabi Range. In 1924, only two years after shipping its first load of sinter, the Mesabi Iron Company suspended mining. The cost of processing the ore was too high and their main customer—the Ford Motor Company—was dissatisfied with the low-iron product.

In the years that followed, heightened production for the war effort depleted natural ore reserves. The Mines Experiment Station continued to refine the process for taconite production, introducing methods that reduced lost iron in waste rock. As taconite became a viable replacement for natural ore mining, advocates throughout the state pushed for favorable taxation for taconite mining. In 1964, the Minnesota Legislature passed a bill and a statewide referendum was approved, placing the taconite amendment into the Minnesota Constitution.

The first taconite mine was run by the Reserve Mining Company, which shipped its first load in 1955. The pit was located near Babbitt, and the processing facilities were on Lake Superior. Reserve Mining faced controversy when fishermen and conservationists questioned whether depositing tailings into Lake Superior was healthy for fish and humans. This led to a lawsuit that gave the new Environmental Protection Agency regulatory powers in the 1970s.

In the 1980s, the steel industry slowed its production due to global competition. As a result, taconite plants on the Mesabi Range idled, plants were sold to competitors, and some closed for good. Even with a changing steel industry, however, taconite continued to play a major role in sustaining the Iron Range economy.

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© Minnesota Historical Society
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Davis, E. W. Pioneering With Taconite. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1964.

——— . “Pioneering With Taconite: The Birth of a Minnesota Industry.” Minnesota History 34, no. 7 (Fall 1955): 269–283.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/34/v34i07p269-283.pdf

——— . “Taconite: The Derivation of the Name.” Minnesota History 33, no. 7 (Fall 1953): 282–283.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/33/v33i07p282-283.pdf

Manuel, Jeffrey T. Taconite Dreams. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015.

6F G4141.P3 1946 .S54
Duluth, Missabe, and Iron Range Railway map
Map Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Duluth Missabe and Iron Range Railway, Missabe and Iron Range Divisions, shipping points, stations, spurs, and mileage, 1946.

Pamphlets Relating to Iron Ore and Taconite Processing
Pamphlet Collection, Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul
Description: Pamphlets related to the processing of taconite and iron ore. Produced by mining companies like US Steel, Reserve Mining Company, and Erie Mining Company.

Upham, Warren. Minnesota Place Names: A Geographical Encyclopedia. Third edition. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2001.

Related Images

United States Steel’s Extaca plant, 1960. The Oliver Mining Division of USS built the Extaca plant to accompany the Pilotac plant in the development of feasible taconite processing methods.
United States Steel’s Extaca plant, 1960. The Oliver Mining Division of USS built the Extaca plant to accompany the Pilotac plant in the development of feasible taconite processing methods.
Peter Mitchell’s taconite-ore test pit near Babbitt, 1960. Mitchell looked for ore in the 1880s as a member of the Ontonagon Syndicate.
Peter Mitchell’s taconite-ore test pit near Babbitt, 1960. Mitchell looked for ore in the 1880s as a member of the Ontonagon Syndicate.
Mines Experiment Station, 1923. The station at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities was key in the commercialization of taconite under the direction of E. W. Davis.
Mines Experiment Station, 1923. The station at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities was key in the commercialization of taconite under the direction of E. W. Davis.
Cookhouse at Sulphur Camp, 1916. Sulphur Camp was the location of early taconite research, near current-day Babbitt, Minnesota.  Peter Mitchell, a prospector from Michigan, explored the area and found that taconite was plentiful on this part of the Iron Range.
Cookhouse at Sulphur Camp, 1916. Sulphur Camp was the location of early taconite research, near current-day Babbitt, Minnesota.  Peter Mitchell, a prospector from Michigan, explored the area and found that taconite was plentiful on this part of the Iron Range.
Taconite prospectors at Sulphur Camp, ca. 1916. To access Sulphur Camp, prospectors would have to take a rail cart, pictured here, from Mesaba Station. Seated to the far left is E. W. Davis.
Taconite prospectors at Sulphur Camp, ca. 1916. To access Sulphur Camp, prospectors would have to take a rail cart, pictured here, from Mesaba Station. Seated to the far left is E. W. Davis.
First Train of Taconite to Silver Bay, Minnesota, 1955. The first train of taconite from Reserve Mining Company’s Peter Mitchell Pit was shipped to the concentration facilities in Silver Bay in 1955.
First Train of Taconite to Silver Bay, Minnesota, 1955. The first train of taconite from Reserve Mining Company’s Peter Mitchell Pit was shipped to the concentration facilities in Silver Bay in 1955.
Taconite Harbor, 1956. Taconite Harbor was built to ship ore mined and processed at Erie Mining Company in Hoyt Lakes to steel mills on the Great Lakes. Concentrated ore was shipped from Hoyt Lakes to Taconite Harbor on a private railroad.
Taconite Harbor, 1956. Taconite Harbor was built to ship ore mined and processed at Erie Mining Company in Hoyt Lakes to steel mills on the Great Lakes. Concentrated ore was shipped from Hoyt Lakes to Taconite Harbor on a private railroad.
Hoyt Lakes under construction, 1955. Hoyt Lakes was built to accommodate workers and mine staff by the Erie Mining Company—the Iron Range’s second major taconite facility.
Hoyt Lakes under construction, 1955. Hoyt Lakes was built to accommodate workers and mine staff by the Erie Mining Company—the Iron Range’s second major taconite facility.
Erie Mining Company’s Concentrator Building under construction, ca. 1954. The Concentrator Building—where taconite is finely ground and iron ore is removed from the rock—was built near Hoyt Lakes around 1954.
Erie Mining Company’s Concentrator Building under construction, ca. 1954. The Concentrator Building—where taconite is finely ground and iron ore is removed from the rock—was built near Hoyt Lakes around 1954.
Taconite Amendment bumper sticker, 1964. To promote a “yes” vote on the taconite amendment to rewrite the tax structure that affected taconite operations, advocates made bumper stickers to advertise their cause.
Taconite Amendment bumper sticker, 1964. To promote a “yes” vote on the taconite amendment to rewrite the tax structure that affected taconite operations, advocates made bumper stickers to advertise their cause.
photograph of mining plant and harbor
photograph of mining plant and harbor
United States Steel’s Pilotac plant, 1955. The Oliver Mining Division of USS built the Pilotac plant to develop taconite processing methods. Minntac was the result of these efforts.
United States Steel’s Pilotac plant, 1955. The Oliver Mining Division of USS built the Pilotac plant to develop taconite processing methods. Minntac was the result of these efforts.
A sign outside a business promoting a “yes” vote on the taconite amendment, 1964.
A sign outside a business promoting a “yes” vote on the taconite amendment, 1964.

Turning Point

On September 13, 1956, the Reserve Mining Company dedicates its E. W. Davis Works plant in Silver Bay, recognizing a man who pioneered taconite’s commercialization and ushering in its era of mining on the Mesabi Iron Range.

Chronology

1870

Christian Wieland and Peter Mitchell travel to the Mesabi Iron Range and find taconite on the site of the future Mesabi Iron Company plant near Babbitt.

1882

Wieland and Mitchell—with others—form the Ontonagon Syndicate and incorporate the Mesaba Iron Company to develop their land owned around Mitchell’s “Mountain of Iron.”

1913

The work of the University of Minnesota’s Mines Experiment Station begins with the first shipment of minerals to their offices in Minneapolis.

1916

The newly formed Mesabi Syndicate takes over the land controlled by the Ontonagon Syndicate and looks for ore at the Sulphur Camp, near Birch Lake and the Dunka River. E. W. Davis takes a leave of absence from the Mines Experiment Station to work on it.

1919

The Mesabi Iron Company is incorporated by the Mesabi Syndicate.

1922

The Mesabi Iron Company ships its first taconite sinter to the Ford Motor Company.

1924

The Mesabi Iron Company shuts down due to an insufficient product and a difficult market dominated by natural ore.

1945

Oglebay Norton begins acquiring land for a taconite plant—Reserve Mining Company—near current-day Babbitt.

1953

US Steel’s experimental plant, Pilotac, begins experimenting to find effective taconite beneficiation methods.

1972

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally files a complaint against Reserve Mining Company and encourages the Department of Justice to file a lawsuit against the company because of concerns that tailings are impacting Lake Superior.

1977

Reserve builds the Milepost Seven Tailings Basin in response to the Lake Superior pollution lawsuit.

1986

Reserve Mining Company goes bankrupt as the steel industry restructures. It reopens a few years later as Cleveland-Cliffs’ Northshore Mining.

2001

Erie Mining Company—now LTV Steel Mining Company—files for bankruptcy, and the Hoyt Lakes facility is shuttered.

2009

Magnetation, a company that reprocesses tailings to recover lost ore, opens a pilot plant in Nashwauk. The plant closes a few years later due to a stagnant steel industry.